Should I experiment on animals?

The consequences of the alternatives must be considered: If not conducting an experiment is likely to lead to the needless death and suffering of uncountable future people, then do we not have an obligation to conduct the experiment?

But I suspect many people will still feel that inaction is the default, conservative option. This is called “omission bias”. If you are walking along and come across a child, and then decide to drown that child, how bad a person would that make you? What if you were walking along and came across a drowning child, and then decided to not save them and let them drown? How bad would that be?

Most people respond saying that the path of inaction is not as bad, even though the outcome is exactly the same. For example, how is this line of reasoning any different from the defence, “I didn’t kill him, the bullet did”? You knew what the outcome of your choices would be and you still decided to go with the option where the victim died.

It is very similar to the behaviour of uncertain parents who decide not to vaccinate their children on the off chance that it might be dangerous. But they don’t consider the fact that through inaction they are exposing their children to the much greater risk of terrible diseases. But giving your child a vaccine feels like a more direct intervention, hence the irrationally different weighting.

This is very reminiscent of the trolley problem. If there is an out of control train heading towards five workmen on the tracks, about to kill them, then should you flip the switch to send the train on a different track where it will only kill one workman? Most people say that yes, of course, you would have to be a monster to choose the option of killing more people. But when the question is reframed as “should you push one fat man into the path of the train to slow it to a stop before it kills the five workmen,” then most people say that you would have to be a monster to push someone in front of a train.

Similarly, I expect that many people, equipped as we are with the brains of primates trying to survive by cooperatively hunting and gathering, would have a stronger aversion to the directly harmful choice of conducting experiments on animals, than the indirectly harmful choice of not conducting experiments that could save lives and alleviate suffering.

In essence, I imagine that most of the vigour against animal testing is due to this short-sightedness built into human moral psychology.

On a related note:

Invaluable knowledge was generated from torturous experiments on prisoners of war. And then, after the dust had settled and the truth came to light, the winning countries considered destroying the data. As though somehow they could right the wrongs done to the victims by committing another wrong: by destroying life-saving medical knowledge. That is an infantile response. That is worse than crying over spilled milk. That is spilling another jug of milk as a sign of respect for the first one, solemnly bowing our heads for a moment’s silence as we make a bad situation worse, prioritising the symbolism of the act over the harm it does to actual people.

But I will leave an analysis of the silliness of “justice” for another day.


Big Think. (25 November, 2012). “Are You A Psychopath? Take the Test”. Youtube Video, online @

Wikipedia. (2013). “Omission Bias”. Online @


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